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Oscars 2022 | What’s “international” in a movie?

It’s time American awards shows dropped the “international” or “foreign” category and judge a movie as just a movie.

March 27, 2022 / 08:28 PM IST
'Drive My Car'—the only movie nominated in the Best Picture as well as the Best International Feature categories—has already made history.

'Drive My Car'—the only movie nominated in the Best Picture as well as the Best International Feature categories—has already made history.

It’s been three years since The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided “foreign” wasn’t a word that should qualify any of their awards categories. The Best Foreign Language Feature changed to the more politically correct Best International Feature Film. “We have noted that the reference to ‘Foreign’ is outdated within the global filmmaking community,” wrote Larry Karaszewski and Diane Weyermann, co-chairs of the Academy subcommittee that facilitates the category, in a statement explaining the new name. “We believe that International Feature Film better represents this category, and promotes a positive and inclusive view of filmmaking, and the art of film as a universal experience.”

The next year, Korean director Bong-Joon Ho’s Parasite won Best Film, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director and Best International Feature Film.

It was a historic sweep for the Korean director who had already been a transnational filmmaker. He had worked with American collaborators since his first English Language film Snowpiercer (2013). Okja (2017), which also won major awards at prestigious festivals across the world, was made with Hollywood collaboration. He went back to his Korean roots more doggedly for Parasite, which was almost entirely in Korean.

In 2021, Lee Issac Chung’s excellent, most American of movies, Minari, about a Korean immigrant family who follows their American dream in 1980s’ Arkansas, lost the Best Film nomination because more than 70 percent of the film is in Korean, and went on to win the Best International feature that year.

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But like the rules the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) that awards the Golden Globes every year, the rules of nominating an international feature film remain unchanged since the inception of the awards. According to the HFPA’s rules, if 51 percent of a movie is spoken in languages other than English, it's considered a foreign language film. The Academy follows the same rule. Added to this is another exclusionary rule which requires a film to be made by a crew that comprises artistes and technicians from that country. In 94 years of Oscars history, only 12 non-English language films have made it to the most coveted Best Picture category. In 2019, the Academy disqualified Nigeria’s submission for International Feature Film, Lionheart, because it was in English—English is Nigeria’s official language. The film’s director Ava DuVernay publicly questioned if this ruling meant that the Academy was essentially banning Nigeria from ever competing in this category.

In presentation, nominations as well as awards, we have seen far more diversity at the Oscars in the last few years than ever before. By changing the name of the award, the Academy has acknowledged that “foreignness” is an archaic concept in today’s hyper-globalized, democratic world of making and consuming films. But in practice, the rules of nomination remain unchanged. First, the Academy has no role in what films get sent from a country to be considered for a nomination. In the process, in many countries like Iran and China, where censorship is stringent, films with themes that represent anti-establishment views don’t even make it to the category. The reason Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox did not make it to the selection by the Film Federation of India’s selection committee in 2013 despite being a festival circuit favourite and considered a favourite of most international juries that year, was that the committee in India thought it was not Indian enough. A lot of the film is in English.

It’s high time nebulous definitions of what is “foreign” or “international” and what is American get a radical overhaul. The Academy, although not influential enough in the geopolitical sense of the world, provoke conversations within America. The diversity in the subjects of the movies, the speeches the winners make and the conversations they provoke make political statements within America. For the Academy to be taken seriously as a promoter of good cinema and to embrace the new world where stories are unifiers, it has to be more actively involved in choosing the nomination in the way documentaries are chosen—a committee comprising experts in the non-fiction genre chooses films from around the world, thereby owning the agency itself, on what subjects and what kind of filmmaking get chosen. India’s nomination this year, Writing with Fire by Sushmit Sen and Rintu Thomas on the reporters of India’s first rural newspaper run by women Khabar Lahariya, is one such breakthrough example.

To do away with the International Feature Film at the Oscars or the Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes will level the playing field and would send out a powerful message for artistic industries and communities across the world: That a film is a film, irrespective of its language and nationality of the crew which made it the film it is. It’s time the most influential awards bodies in the world stopped worrying about how to classify a film, spread their selection wing wide enough to choose films that not only resonate with a global audience but represent diverse, politically and culturally challenging views of the countries and societies they represent, and watch a film for what it is—a film with a story, a heart and a world view.

So Drive My Car, the only such movie nominated in the category—as well as the Best International Feature category—has already made history. It is also the first ever film to be nominated in this category from Japan—a country known for a staggering variety of filmmakers and storytellers working in various classical genres as well as innovative genre-defying styles. In the pre-social media and pre-diversity era, the Academy recognised the force of filmmaking legends and masters such as Japan’s Akira Kurosawa and India’s Satyajit Ray by honouring them with the Lifetime Achievement Award (Kurosawa in 1990; Ray in 1992).

Drive My Car is based on a short story by perhaps the most translated Japanese author of all time, Haruki Murakami, and is directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi. It is a transcendent story about grief, loss and the power of human connection to sustain us. Widowed actor and theatre director (Hidetoshi Nishijimai) imploding in grief and anger at his beloved, unfaithful and dead wife, must stage his take on Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya”. He develops an unlikely bond with a young woman (Tôko Miura) who serves as his chauffeur as he works on the play, and who is grieving an intense loss of her own. The film has won Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival, and Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes this year.

It is still an underdog at the Awards this year, if going by a recent statement made by an anonymous Academy member quoted by The Hollywood Reporter: “Drive My Car is not a bad movie, but it belongs in the international feature category, not here, just like Parasite did.” In the final decision, how “foreign” or “international” the academy makes this powerful human story to be will be clear on Monday morning.

Catch live updates on the 94th Academy Awards at moneycontrol.com from 4.45am IST on Monday, March 28.



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Sanjukta Sharma is a freelance writer and journalist based in Mumbai.
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